Saskatoon

'This is dangerous': Striking Saskatoon Co-op workers want deal

As the strike nears day 100, Saskatoon Co-op is paying those who cross picket lines and hundreds of replacement workers to keep its stores open. Union members reject its proposed two-tier wage grid.

Co-op hires hundreds of replacement workers, will open new liquor store this month in Saskatoon

There are no picket lines at the former Safeway at Circle Drive and 8th Street East, as workers there are represented by a different union. (CBC/Matt Garand)

Saskatoon Co-op plans to open a brand-new liquor store on 8th Street East this month. 

It amalgamated with the Hepburn Co-operative Association this weekend, bringing locations in Hepburn, Dalmeny, Waldheim and Rosthern under the Saskatoon Co-op banner.

Its CEO, Grant Wicks, said profits at the grocery and gas bar at 8th Street East and Circle Drive represented by a different union are "fantastic, higher than they've ever been."

But workers Wicks used to employ said shoppers are prolonging what's become a bitter strike, 

Clad in thick parkas, small groups try to maintain picket lines through a bitterly cold snap, as wind chills in Saskatoon make temperatures feel below -50C.

On Friday, they'll have spent 100 days on strike, after voting three times to reject Saskatoon Co-op's two-tiered salary proposal.

It's still a far cry from the nine years workers at the Pineland Co-operative Association spent on strike in Nipawin, back in the 1980s.

Striking Saskatoon Co-op workers watch drivers cross their picket line to fuel up at the gas bar in Stonebridge. (CBC/Chanss Lagaden)

Picketers said other retail workers have warned them against signing contracts segregating new hires into a lower pay grid, because refusing to pay employees working side-by-side the same amount weakens morale.

Co-op trying to compete in 'cutthroat' industry

"It's a very principled strike," said Scott Walsworth, an associate professor at the Edwards School of Business at the University of Saskatchewan, who also works as a provincial labour arbitrator.

He said workers are picketing for employees who don't work there yet, while Co-op needs to remain competitive in what's become "a cutthroat industry" selling groceries, liquor and fuel.

'I would be surprised if this goes more than another couple of weeks,' said Scott Walsworth, a labour arbitrator and associate professor at the Edwards School of Business. (CBC)

"From a financial position it's difficult to understand why the employer is holding out this long, considering the amount of revenue that they're losing," said Walsworth.

"UFCW has already said they're willing to accept some form of two-tier contract provided that the difference between the two tiers are fairly small, and that might just be the opening that the employer is willing to settle for," he said.

Inside its stores, Saskatoon Co-op has now hired close to 300 replacement workers.

The company said many of those are new Canadians recruited from the Saskatoon area, keeping stores open alongside more than 200 unionized employees who've returned to work.

"That indicates that some of the picketers at least are frustrated with the lack of progress and want to return to work," said Wicks.

Wicks said employees from Federated Co-operatives Limited have also worked at Saskatoon Co-op locations periodically during the strike, as well as some workers from neighbouring co-ops.

'We're not looking to dial back benefits for our people,' said Saskatoon Co-op CEO Grant Wicks. 'Our offers to the union have included lower pay rates, but the benefits have been untouched.' (Saskatoon Co-op)

Prior to the strike, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers said Saskatoon Co-op earned an average of $1.5 million a day at stores selling fuel, hardware, farm supplies, liquor and groceries.

A provincially appointed conciliator worked with both sides for more than a year before the strike began.

Wicks said at this point, he sees no benefit in binding arbitration.

"Our locations in Warman and Martensville have done very well despite the strike," Wicks said, describing store profits during the strike as a "mixed bag."

Union members said former customers are shopping elsewhere.

"Traffic is way down," said Rod Gillies, a negotiator with UFCW Local 1400.

'This is not just uncomfortable. This is dangerous,' said Rod Gillies, lead negotiator for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1400. 'We want to get to a deal.' (CBC/Chanss Lagaden)

"We have put together on numerous occasions different versions of a second tier that address all their concerns about sustainability," said Gillies. "They've rejected all of them and their position hasn't changed since the beginning."

Wicks said Saskatoon Co-op must cap wages for new employees if it wants to remain competitive.

"We've got to concern ourselves with the long-term sustainability of the co-operative here and if that means that there's some short-term pain, well we just have to accept that," Wicks said.

'My equity is in jeopardy'

The Saskatoon Co-operative Association counted 114,504 members in the weeks prior to the strike. 

In mid-November, more than 300 of them, including 224 union members, signed a petition urging the association to hold a special members' meeting, 

Co-op refused. The matter continues to wind its way through the courts.

"The longer this drags on for the more my equity is in jeopardy," said Craig Thebaud, who represents the petitioners. "As customers shop elsewhere their habits become permanent."

By law, the Saskatoon Co-operative Association must hold an annual general meeting for its members on or before July 31, 2019. 

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